Here’s a ‘pitch’ for youth sports memories
I was delivering newspapers— big ones, the 10-insert Thanksgiving kind—when I looked up and saw the man coming toward me across the parking lot of a convenience store.
I mentally reviewed everything I had written that week, couldn’t think of anything that could be interpreted as even mildly controversial.
(But then since I’m usually unable to remember anything I wrote more than 12 hours ago, I always end up being like Doc Morrissey, the company physician in one of those British television shows I seem to love and nobody else has ever heard of.
Employee: “Doctor, my right big toe hurts!” Doc Morrissey: “So does mine. I wonder what it is?”)
Not to worry. He had a big smile on his face and stuck out his hand.
By the time he told me his name I had already recognized the smile.
“You taught me how to throw a slider when I was 11,” he grinned.
And it all fell into place. He was one of my first group of Little Leaguers in 1971 and I coached him three years in two baseball age divisions.
At the end of the 1973 season we were an also-ran team, back in the pack, and another team was apparently on their way to an undefeated season. We played our final game against them.
My slider-throwing young pitcher not only beat that team, he shut them out.
“I’ve never forgotten that day,” he grinned. We stood there and did almost a play-by-play of that game 39 years ago at the end of Copeland Street.
I remembered the final pitch, a line drive which was turned into an unassisted double play by our second baseman.
He remembered our 10-yearold right fielder catching a fly ball he really hadn’t expected to catch.
The young man put his glove up high, felt something make contact, peeked around the edge of the glove, discovered a baseball inside and his face broke out into this wonderful expression of spontaneous joy.
We laughed. That’s stuff you really don’t forget. And shouldn’t. Then things turned serious. I knew that he’d had some ups and downs in his life, as have we all.
“I’ve never forgotten those days and how good they were,” he told me. “I’ve never forgotten you. I’ve always thought of you like you were my best friend and I’ve told a lot of people that.”
Thank God I was wearing sunglasses. That got to me.
We visited a while longer then shook hands again. I wished him well. I know we all say that a lot but I’ve never been more sincere about anything.
There are people who really slam youth sports, which rely on volunteers for everything.
I guess somet imes that ’s deserved. But most of the time it isn’t.
Most of the time it’s dads and moms who want to provide a positive, rewarding experience for their kids and your kids too.
They’ve got jobs and duties but they’re willing to sacrifice lots of time, and probably acquire a heartache or two along the way, to take on the job. I coached—and if you want I can provide you with the names of plenty of former kids who will tell you “coach” is the wrong verb—summer sports 15 years.
I thought I was Casey Stengel, Tom Landry and Bear Bryant rolled into one. Now, looking back, it’s surprising how few memories of that time are involved with winning and losing.
They are about the boy who came to practice the day his sister died. He needed his teammates to help him cope.
They are about the young lady, not really an athlete, who caught a softball line drive mostly with her face and neck, but beamed through the pain and a few tears because she had helped her team, and that meant something.
They are about the coaches I observed, people who knew far more about the game than I did, but who never lost sight of the fact that the kids came first.
People like Frank Ramirez Sr. and Monte Alford, who prepared their teams to play, expected a lot out of them, but went out of their way to make the athletic, and team, experience so positive for every child, not just the gifted ones.
And there are hundreds more.
I’ll bet many of those coaches have been blessed with experience like I was fortunate enough to have last week.
My ex-Little Leaguer was heading into the store and I closed the trunk of my car and pulled open my door, preparing to leave for my next delivery .
“Hey!” I yelled at him. He turned.
“You made my day, man!” I hollered.
He flashed that smile, one last time, and for a split second he was 11 again, winding up to snap off another slider over the outside corner.